By the early 1970’s Eric Clapton was to deliberately embark on a series of cruisy, bloozy albums, beginning with 1974’s generally laid back but excellent 461 Ocean Boulevard. So by 1977, one would think that his audience might have gotten the point. Because by this time the man had largely turned away from the very thing people loved him for, and decided to steer his compass in a whole new direction. One which the fans may not have always liked, but a direction which he himself felt he had to take.
Slowhand is commonly regarded by critics as one of his most accomplished LPs from this period, as well as being a return to form, whatever that means. Part of its success no doubt lies in the fact that it had a bit of something for everyone; slow, syrupy ballads; a predominately instrumental power workout for the guitar heads; reflective, good time country-rockers, and, most importantly, the blues. In other words, an entirely respectable collection of inoffensive radio-friendly numbers you could play without pissing off your grandparents at the next family BBQ.
“Cocaine” is the famous opener, and the song which was almost solely responsible for ensuring Slowhand’s commercial success. Although it was J.J. Cale who wrote and recorded the song only a year before, it was Clapton’s version which caught the public’s attention. Something which I’m sure didn’t bother Cale one bit, a man who seemed like he’d much prefer to sit on the porch with a cold beer anyway than actually have to do any heavy lifting. And whether you favour the original, Clapton’s interpretation is still pretty near perfect, adding multiple guitar solos, without straying from the song’s basic structure. That it became a hit is not surprising, as it seamlessly blended Eric’s penchant for relaxed composition combined with complex guitar playing.
Next is the song which must have had many fans reaching for the magnesium sulphate. Love it or loathe it, “Wonderful Tonight” proved to be a radio favourite, even if Eric himself harboured doubts as to its actual worth. The guitar is indeed, well, wonderful, but I can’t exactly recommend the lyrics. Just the sort of sentimental drivel you expect to hear at a wedding as the bride and groom dance in blissful marital harmony before all and sundry. Apparently Clapton used to bring his then wife, Pattie Boyd on stage before performing it, just to add to the cringe factor.
Things improve with the country flavoured “Lay Down Sally”, not one of Clapton’s worst songs, but certainly not one of his best either. It’s an innocuous little number to be sure and pleasant enough if you’re in the mood. Personally I don’t mind it, but I couldn’t listen to this sort of stuff all day. “Next Time You See Her” is another quasi-country tune, with nice guitar and vocals, which drifts into your ear then out again in forgettable fashion. “We’re All the Way” is even more tedious than “Wonderful Tonight”, and is one of those things you look forward to getting out of the way, like having to go and pee in the middle of a party. At least it’s short. However we pick up steam with “The Core”, where Clapton redeems himself from any previous musical misdemeanours, and is one of the most memorable tracks included here, proving that Eric hadn’t completely run out of androgenic hormones. It’s also the longest track, at 8:45, and boy does the record benefit as a result. Co-written by Clapton and Marcy Levy, who also share lead vocals together, the song peaks and troughs with saxophone by Mel Collins, who should be said, had worked with the likes of King Crimson and Alan Parsons, plus sizzling guitar courtesy of Mr. Slowhand himself. An adrenaline fuelled exercise and certainly one of the highlights.
Clapton’s cover of John Martyn’s “May You Never” bears little resemblance to what its original author chose to present to the world. Why he selected this instead of one of Martyn’s other more superior compositions remains anyone’s guess. Obviously there was something about it which must have struck an inner chord with Eric that he felt it was worth recording. A little plain for my taste, but then you might disagree. “Mean Old Frisco” by Arthur Crudup (the same Arthur Crudup who wrote “That’s Alright”) is next, and a welcome inclusion it is. Although a bit on the drowsy side, it serves as a decent enough distraction and one which the LP probably could have done with some more of. Nice slide too.
Last song (unless you count the deluxe edition) “Peaches and Diesel”, rounds proceedings off in a pleasant is it nearly time for bed manner, and is sort of like an instrumental “Wonderful Tonight”, just the kind of thing you might expect to hear on the closing credits to Bold and the Beautiful. Not bad, but not all that riveting either.
So, what we have is a fairly decent album overall, not his finest, but certainly far from his worst (just wait til the 80s). At least half the record is consistent with his finest solo work, and therefore an essential purchase for any fan no matter what level of appreciation you might fall under.
As a post script the deluxe edition contains four bonus studio tracks, along with an extra disc of live material recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, in London, 1977. So whatever shortcomings the original album itself may suffer from, are more than compensated for by the extra material offered to us here.